Safe at home?

University of Miami baseball coach Jim Morris can't figure out why the Hurricanes never made much of a dent in the national rankings this season. And he has the numbers to back up his claim.

Miami opened the regular season by winning 15 of their first 18 games and closed it out by posting 11 victories in 13 games, including a series victory over nationally ranked Long Beach State on the final weekend of the regular season.

"I wondered about it. It was a battle all year long and I really thought we weren't treated fairly in the polls," says Morris. "But all the rankings in the world don't matter now. Everybody is 0-0."

The Hurricanes will attempt to prove Morris' point right in their backyard.

Miami (39-14-1), in a NCAA Regional for the 31st time in school history, will welcome some familiar foes to Mark Light Field when they host the Coral Gables Regional, starting Friday, May 30.

The top-seeded Hurricanes, who missed a chance at defending their 2001 national championship last season after being eliminated in the South Carolina Super Regional, will meet No. 4 Bethune-Cookman at 7 pm Friday in an opening round game. No. 2 Florida Atlantic (46-14) will play No. 3 Florida (34-19-1) in the regional opener at 3:30 p.m.

"This is what you play for," said Morris. "You have to be excited any time you make a regional but to have it at home is even more special. There are going to be some big crowds and our fans are always jacked up. I can't think of a better situation."

The Hurricanes, who won their final seven regular season games at Mark Light Field this season and suffered consecutive home losses once all season (Florida State, April 18-19), were 27-7-1 at home this season, Miami will enter this year's regional with a 68-10 home postseason record.

"There's just something about playing at home," Morris says. "There's just a different feel to everything going on."

Miami has advanced to the College World Series in Omaha 15 of the 18 years they have hosted a regional, including after the 1999 and 2001 seasons, both ending with the Hurricanes hoisting national championship trophies.

The Hurricanes overcame various injuries to the pitching staff as they stayed afloat and away from any long losing streaks, aside from dropping four of six to No. 1 national seed Florida State.

Despite allowing an average of 5.2 runs per game during the regular season the Hurricanes regular pitching staff managed to do a respectable job as top starters J. D. Cockroft (10-2, 2.40 ERA), Brandon Camardese (9-0. 4.42) and Vince Bongiovanni (6-4, 4.05) combined for 25 wins.

And that was without junior pitcher Dan Touchet, who was penciled in as the Hurricanes' ace several days before the start of the season. Touchet was sidelined for the entire season after having elbow surgery. Bongiovanni has also battled arm problems this season and missed a month after going surgery to repair torn cartilage in his right knee. Junior Alex Perez (2-2, 6.57) missed two months with arm problems.

Morris indicated to the latter part of the regular season that the Hurricanes search for a No. 3 starter would continue despite Bongiovanni's return to the rotation. But earlier this week Morris tabbed Bongiovanni as Miami's starter against Bethune-Cookman. With regular closer George Huguet out with a fractured hand, sophomore Shawn Valdes-Fauli (2-0, 4.06, three saves) will continue to serve as the Hurricanes closer at least through the regional.

Morris is confident that starting Bongiovanni on the first day of the tournament and saving Cockroft and Camardese for the remainder of the weekend gives the Hurricanes the best chance of advancing. But should Miami's pitching falter the offense could be right there to pick up the slack. The Hurricanes averaged 8.7 runs and finished the regular season with a .316 team batting average.

The player responsible for most of the damage is freshman shortstop Ryan Braun, who leads the Hurricanes in most offensive categories, including home runs (14), RBIs (66) and slugging percentage (.652). Braun, currently nursing a sore back, had a MRI done earlier this week and is expected to be ready for the regional opener. He is hitting .358.

"Ryan means so much to our offense," says Morris. "For a kid his age his impact has been tremendous."

But Braun isn't alone. Junior college transfer Adam Ricks is hitting .339 with four home runs and 50 RBIs, while freshman third baseman Gaby Sanchez finished the regular season at .321 with six home runs and 50 RBIs. Sophomore outfielder Danny Figueroa has played excellent defense and has compiled a .465 on-base percentage with 35 stolen bases. Figueroa, who has already been invited to play with the USA squad this summer, has to get on base for the Hurricanes to play well, according to Morris.

"Danny is so important," says Morris.

Bethune-Cookman, the first team ever in league history to win the MEAC Tournament out of the loser's bracket, will throw senior John Gragg at the Hurricanes. Gragg, 9-3 with an ERA of 3.24, can also swing the bat. Gragg leads the Wildcats in batting average (.417), slugging percentage (.603), hits (85) and RBIs (60). Junior right-hander Mumba Riviera (6-4, 2.99) and Jahson Page (4-4, 5.40) will also factor in at some point during the regional. The Wildcats are in the NCAA regionals for the fifth consecutive season.

The Owls, who went 2-2 in the Atlantic Sun tournament after winning the regular season title, hit .320 with 64 home runs as a team with seven regulars over .300. Junior outfielder Rusty Brown, who led the conference with a .389 batting average, had 10 home runs and 62 RBIs to pace FAU's offense. Sophomore Jeff Florentino, an All-Tournament selection after going 8-for-16, led the Owls in home runs (14), RBIs (68) and slugging percentage (.632).

Florida Atlantic also has something that most teams dream of this time of year - pitching depth. FAU has four starters that combined for 32 wins during the regular season. Junior left-hander Randy Beam, the top winner in the Atlantic Sun conference this season, led the Owls with a 13-1 record and 2.50 ERA. Senior Danny Core, who has a victory over Miami this season, is 9-2 with an ERA of 3.33. Juniors Travis NeSmith (7-2, 3.95) and Chris Pillsbury (8-4, 4.39) round out a solid rotation.

Florida, one of eight SEC teams that received a regional bid, has participated in a regional seven of the last eight seasons but managed to advance to the CWS just twice (1996, 98). The Gators missed the SEC Tournament last week and were surprise regional selection. But like Morris, Florida starting catcher Brian Rose isn't too concerned with the past.

"This is a new season for us," says Rose, a Miami Killian grad who finished the season hitting .362 with 12 home runs and 45 RBIs. "We have a chance now to turn it around. I think we can do it."

So do three other teams.

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